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Creating a Counter-public Sphere

Kamal Nayan Choubey ( teaches Political Science at Dyal Singh College, University of Delhi.


Writing Resistance: The Rhetorical Imagination of Hindi Dalit Literature by Laura R Brueck, Delhi: Primus Books, 2017; pp xiii + 218₹ 995.


The emergence of Dalit literature in Hindi public sphere has not only raised serious questions on the dominant mainstream Hindi literary world, but also has expanded its domain with new issues, narratives, and aesthetics. Contemporary Dalit discourse in India is constituted by both the publication of a diverse form of literature (including autobiography, short and long fiction, poetry and drama) and critical networks of public debates. These networks are made up of Dalit literary and activist organisations, publishing houses that regularly print texts authored by Dalits, literary journals, magazines, etc. The book under review intends to present a comprehensive study of these different aspects of Hindi Dalit literature as an oppositional or “counter-public” sphere, which has provided Dalit intellectuals and writers a space to express their creativity and construct a counter-narrative against the hegemonic discourse of mainstream Hindi literature.

This book opens up with an introduction and has seven chapters, which are organised in two parts. The first three chapters constituting Part I of the book present Dalit literary sphere as counter-public space and explore debates and literary and political issues that arise among Dalit writers. It also analyses the emergence of Dalit literary organisations and their functioning to make space for their voices in mainstream Hindi literary world. Part II presents close readings of contemporary Hindi Dalit literary prose narratives through the study of the writings (primarily short stories) of some of the well-known Dalit writers like Omprakash Valmiki, Jaiprakash Kardam, Ajay Navaria, and Kusum Meghwal, followed by a conclusion. By discussing the prose narratives of these writers, the author of the book Laura R Brueck has tried to engage with the diverse aesthetic and stylistic strategies employed by them.

The emergence of contemporary Hindi Dalit literature is an important phenomenon in the Indian literary sphere. The Hindi Dalit literature in its contemporary form was established in the early 1980s with the early autobiographies, poetries and short stories of eminent writers such as Valmiki and Mohandas Namishray. Noted editor of the famous Hindi magazine Hans, Rajendra Yadav, played a crucial role in establishing many of the Dalit writers, as he published their stories and also wrote extensive and thought-provoking editorials in favour of this new genre of Hindi literature. However, before the emergence of Dalit literature in Hindi, it had already entrenched its roots in other regional languages like Marathi and Tamil. Brueck underlines that this delayed start of Dalit literature in Hindi has often been attributed to the unorganised Dalit political movement in North India until the late 20th century and with the absence of influential leaders such as B R Ambedkar in West and Periyar E V Ramasamy in South India. The contemporary Dalit writers are trying to reconstruct the historical lineages of the Hindi Dalit literature, including the writings of Kabir Das and Ravidas in the category.

Brueck presents a theoretical context for understanding the role of literary institutions as constituting a counter-public space for contemporary Dalit identity construction. She argues that the theoretical positioning of the Hindi Dalit literary sphere as a counter-public can help to contextualise the communicative space in which the debate over Munshi Premchand and others have taken place in the last several years. Nancy Fraser defined counter-public sphere and has been quoted in the book as

parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs. (p 4)

The counter-public model is instructive in its positioning of the Dalit literary sphere as one that occupies a parallel and oppositional space to the Indian literary mainstream. This Dalit counter-public sphere creates both a shared space for the reflexive circulation of discourse that has been marginalised from the mainstream public sphere and also challenges the mainstream to recognise this competing discourse (p 80).

The book extensively discusses the burning of Premchand’s book and denouncing his many important stories due to “derogatory” remarks against Dalit castes. In 2004, the Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi (BDSA) publicly burned many copies of Premchand’s celebrated novel Rangbhumi. They were opposing the decision of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to include it in the syllabus of 12th standard, due to use of the term “Chamar” in the book. Interestingly, Brueck informs, that after one and a half year of the BDSA protest, the NCERT decided to replace the term with the less offensive “Dalit.” This term Chamar was, however, not replaced from the story of Dalit writer Valmiki’s story, which was also part of the syllabus. The author claims that this incident indeed underlines that the state itself “reifies the divide between authentic and inauthentic literary Dalit perspectives’’ (p 3). The author asserts that this whole episode and the extensive debates related to the question of “authenticity” of non-Dalit writers, to write on Dalit issues should be treated as cultural performance. She underlines that it is a method of newly emerged counter-public of Hindi Dalit writers to engage, oppose and redefine the limits of traditionally elite Hindi literary discourses.

Aesthetics of Dalit Literature

Dalit literature generally in all languages and particularly in Hindi has been treated as the literature of resistance and the aesthetic aspects of the construction of Dalit literary narratives have not been properly analysed. This book claims to focus on these aspects of Hindi Dalit literature by presenting a close reading of some short stories written by prolific and notable Dalit writers, Valmiki and Kardam. The author presents a deep analysis of Valmiki’s “Pachchis Chauka Derh Sau” (25 fours are 150), written in 2000 and Kardam’s “Lathi” (The Stick) written in 2005. These two and other Dalit writers want both Dalits and non-Dalits to think about the world around them in a new way, to challenge exploitation whenever they see it. But, the “crucial difference between the narratives of the Dalit counter-public sphere and non-Dalit writers is that the characters in Dalit narratives are more than sympathetic or symbolic objects. Rather they manifest the possibility of transforming society” (p 99). The author argues that in both the short stories one can find the use of “melodramatic realism,” which is a combination of literary realism and melodrama. Literary realism focuses on the existing reality of society and makes heroes out of some of society’s most persecuted victims. Melodrama has the power to raise the status of that persecution to elevated heights. Brueck emphasised that melodramatic realism serves as the chosen narrative mode for Dalit writers to represent their subjectivity, rage against injustice, and ultimately triumph in the awareness of the possibility of change (p 99).

One important aspect of Hindi Dalit literature is that the writers are using different characters and different linguistic styles to convey messages to their targeted readers. The author demonstrates this by closely analysing several stories by Valmiki, Susheela Takbhore, Suraj Pal Chauhan and Ajay Navaria. The Dalit writers have used many dialects and English vocabulary to express the alternative social identities by their characters. Further, the impact of elite language in close contact with rustic dialogue forces readers to feel more strongly the social and emotional distance between various Dalit psyches. Brueck asserts that by using this method they

succeed in constructing a hierarchical coding that forces us to think more carefully about the simplistic egalitarian presumptions of Dalit literature than are revealed through content analyses. (p 121)

The author also deeply engaged with the undercurrents of nostalgia and the spectres of loss and alienation in many narratives of Dalit political awakening. She looks specifically at three short stories of Ajay Navaria: “Upmahadvip” (Subcontinent) written in 2004, “Bali” (Sacrifice) written in 2004, and “Es Dhamm Sanantano” (Eternal Law) written in 2003. They primarily narrate tales of Dalit characters, who have moved to the urban Indian cities. According to Brueck, these stories are unique in their theoretical considerations of alienation, as well as physical and figurative distances between rural and urban Indian spaces. She emphasises that Navaria has challenged the aesthetic exigencies established by the predominant architects of the Hindi Dalit literary counter-public. Indeed, Navaria’s fiction participates in a contemporary critique of modernity. Brueck emphasises that “[T]he crisis of identity and alienation of Navaria’s characters point to a recognition of the impossibility of universal subjecthood” (p 153). Navaria’s stories alert us to personal challenges that arise almost like a side effect, from embracing the opportunities for betterment, including education, political awareness, and material consumption.

The author considers the challenges that Dalit feminist writers have raised against the normative masculinity tendencies of the Dalit literary sphere in both its hierarchical organisation and its literary creations. In this context the author specifically looks at the subgenre of rape-revenge narratives through the analysis of some stories of the noted Dalit feminist writer Kusum Meghwal. The non-Dalit writers and male Dalit writers have presented rape as a brutal form of caste violence, where Dalit women have been presented as the passive recipient of this kind of brutal violence against them. Feminist Dalit writers and critics are working to rescue Dalit women’s bodies from passive manipulation. In this context, the author has presented a deep analysis of two stories, Mangali and Angara, written by Rajasthani writer Meghwal, in which she presents an exemplary exploration of alternative possibilities for female agency. The Dalit female characters in her stories are not passive recipients of brutal sexual offences on their bodies but there is a “woman-centred revenge fantasy that allows Dalit women to disrupt the normative social script of sexual assault” (p 171).

Few Limitations

Undoubtedly, this book gives us an insightful understanding of different debates of Hindi Dalit literature and also presents unique literary aesthetic aspects of this literature. There are, however, some crucial limitations of this book: First, though the author claims that she has gone through different literary magazines and debates that have emerged in the Dalit counter-public, she presents a picture of homogeneous Dalit counter-public. The book does not discuss the debates related to right-wing politics and its growing impact on the Dalit intellectuals. Second, though the book eloquently engages with the arguments presented by many Hindi Dalit literary figures regarding the question of authenticity, there is no systematic discussion on the debates between Dalit intellectuals and non-Dalit intellectuals on the same issue. Third, though the author claims in the beginning that the book intends to cover different debates emerged in the counter-public sphere of Hindi literary world, it does not cover many debates which occurred in the literary world in general and Dalit literary world in particular. In this context, the impact of globalisation and capitalism in the lives of Dalit could be underlined as one such important issue. Fourth, though the analysis of many short stories underscores crucial aspects and differentiated voices within Hindi Dalit literature, there is no thorough engagement with the materials published in many Hindi magazines and journals or other expressions of literature like poetry, play, etc, for example: though the author mentioned Hans magazine as an important site for the expression of Dalit writings in Hindi, there is no clear analysis of any writing or debate published in this journal.

However, there is no doubt that this book is an important contribution and it gives readers an insightful understanding of the issues, debates and aesthetic aspects of the Dalit Hindi writings. It eloquently argues that even though there are some agreements on larger inspirational figures for Dalit literature, one could find diversified voices on the issues related to the impact of modernity or presentation of violence against women, etc. Through the scholarly and incisive exploration of the many short stories and their representation of characters, linguistic expressions and utopian imaginations of overcoming present exploitative situation, the author has presented a sympathetic but critical understanding of Hindi Dalit literature.



Updated On : 5th Apr, 2019


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